As I ran the irrigation system for the first few times, I had no idea how much money it was costing me. We’re only billed every two months so it would take a while to find out and I didn’t want a big surprise. To get a rough idea, I ran each zone for a few minutes and then took a reading from the water meter. Thankfully we have very accurate water meters so I was able to get good readings.

Coupled with that effort, I also put some jars around the yard as the irrigation ran to see how much water it was putting down. The books and web sites I’ve read say that you should give your yard 1” of rain per week spread over either one or two sessions. This encourages the grass to build up a better root system than they would if you watered a little bit every day. Each zone in my system needs to be on for 30 minutes to give the grass 1” of water.

Putting all that info into a spreadsheet tells me that it costs about $4/week to water my lawn. That will probably be closer to $10 once we get the front yard done. For a huge portion of the year, it’s either cool or wet enough that I won’t need to water, but during those few hot dry weeks we get in July and August every year, it will be awesome to have a healthy green lawn.

If you use Amazon regularly, be sure to check out AmazonSmile. You choose a charity and then Amazon gives them about half a percent of the money from your purchase. There’s very little work that needs to happen on your end to give the charity a nice donation. The hardest part is just remembering to start your session from smile.amazon.com so that your purchase qualifies for the program. There are lots of charities to pick from and if you run a 501c3 organization, you can add it. For those of you affiliated with the WELS, you might be interested to note that MLC is already on the list.

You may remember a previous post about a product called SpinRite. It’s a hard drive maintenance and recovery tool, and it’s handy to have it in my bag of tricks. It has always been slightly annoying to use though because it requires me to dedicate a machine to it while it’s running and it can easily take a day (or even a week) to run.

Last week I had cause to run it again and after futzing around for a long time trying to get it to run on a spare laptop (it wouldn’t see the USB drive that was connected to the laptop), I started to wonder if I could get it to run in a virtual machine on my main desktop. SpinRite uses very low level commands to access the drive and I didn’t think that would work inside a VM, but why not try anyway?

Sure enough, it did work! Here are the steps I did:

  • Attach the USB hard drive dock to my desktop and insert the drive.
  • Power up the drive and wait for Disk Manager to recognize it.
  • Set the disk to Offline mode.
  • Create a new VM in Hyper-V (I’m running Windows 8.)
  • Use SpinRite.exe to create an ISO and set the VM to boot that ISO.

From that point, SpinRite could see the drive, and I didn’t care how long it took to run because it wasn’t blocking me from doing other work on the machine. Perfect! Theoretically I could even spin up multiple instances of the VM and point it to multiple drives to parallelize a big recovery job.

I’ve never worked on a team that really used an agile process. Some claimed they did but they only went so far as to use it as an excuse to not plan. This new team follows a variation on Kanban that is being developed by another manager in our org, Brent. It’s spreading pretty quickly and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a book written about it in the future.

I first heard about Kanban when I was an intern at John Deere in 2001. They used it on their factory flow to reduce the amount of money tied up in logistics. Applying it to software is similar: keep your total work in progress as low as possible. I won’t go into all the details here. If you really want to learn more, you can read Brent’s blog. (One of his most popular posts is how he implemented this with his kids for chores.) He has also started a podcast called AB Testing. But anyway, here are a few keys to how the system works:

  • Every piece of work done by the team is represented by a ticket on the board.
  • No ticket should take longer than two weeks to finish. All tasks should be trimmed down until they fit into this time window.
  • All tasks move through these phases: Backlog > Ready > Analyze > Engineer > Code Review > Release > Customer Validation > Done. Backlog is the list of work that the team could do, Ready is a small number of tickets that the manager says should come next and the rest of the phases are a little more self-explanatory. There are specific criteria for exiting each stage and every ticket goes through every stage.
  • Lightweight documentation is created in the Analyze phase to give background on the issue, clearly define scope and agree upon what “Done” looks like.
  • Each phase has a limit on the number of tickets that can be in the phase at one time. There's also an overall limit to how many tickets can be in flight in total for the whole team.
  • Morning team standup meetings focus around what you need to do to get your ticket into the next phase and who can help you, NOT a status report of what you’ve been doing.
  • When you finish a ticket, you don’t pick up a new one until you go through every other ticket and ask if you can help move the ticket along.
  • There are special ways to track high priority issues and requests from outside the system.

it seems a little complicated at first, but once you get into it, it’s liberating! Here are some of the things I love about it:

  • Coming on to a new team, this really helps you ramp up. Everyone is encouraged to work with someone else on every ticket. Solo tickets are not the norm. That means you can hop in with someone else and start learning about their area.
  • You’re encouraged to pick up tickets from all areas that the team owns, not just your comfort zone. It’s a bit inefficient at first, but after a couple months, you have a team full of people that really can fill in for each other.
  • At most, you have two tickets on the board at one time. Imagine only having TWO things to work on! You can focus and pound them out instead of constantly task switching.
  • There is ALWAYS help available. The whole system focuses on really working as a team and moving the tickets through the system.
  • It’s very clear how much work is getting done and how long it’s taking. Inefficiencies or choke points quickly bubble to the top to be addressed.
  • This seems to avoid the slow buildup of responsibilities over time that you get as you stay in a group longer and longer. If you’re doing work, it’s on the board. And if it’s visible, it’s less likely to be stuff that builds up. The team will see it and find reduce the cost of those taxes.

This system has made it very enjoyable to ramp up with the new team, see the contributions I’m making, and focus on one or two very specific and well-defined tasks.

Continuing the high school theme from last week, here’s a group picture from our senior class trip to Gettysburg and Washington D.C. I actually went to D.C. twice that summer. The first was with my classmates and the second was with my family. I most likely wore jean shorts and high tops on both trips as evidenced by this photo.

We purchased a used hiking backpack earlier this year, but aside from walks around the neighborhood and working in the yard, we’ve never really used it. Now that the yard is finally done, we are able to spend more time together as a family so this past weekend, we headed out on a more legitimate hike.

Since we didn’t know how Elijah would react to the adventure, I picked a hike that I’ve been avoiding throughout the years because of it’s simplicity. Simple is good in this case though. So we headed for Cougar Mountain to hike around the Anti-Aircraft Peak area (hike #3 in the Beyond Mt. Si book.)

This area was the site of some post-WW2 90mm anti-aircraft guns to help guard the Puget Sound Area. They were later replaced with a site for the Nike Ajax Missile Defense. None of that stuff is still operational or even present on the mountain anymore.

The hike itself went pretty well. We made it about 1.4 miles before Elijah decided he wasn’t loving it. We stopped for a break, but given how unhappy he was when he got back in the pack, we decided to take one of the shorter options to finish the hike at around 2.2 miles. He was almost falling asleep at the very end so we probably could have completed the entire planned hike.

I’d call it mostly a success though. I want to make a few modifications to the backpack to help hold him in place better. I also need to avoid wearing a hat with a big long string that he can pull on! Assuming that he gets more used to riding back there, I think we could tackle some slightly longer trips.

When the original Xbox came out, I was in college and couldn’t afford one. I’d never owned a game system in my life so it wasn’t a huge deal. I ended up winning one in a programming contest. When the Xbox 360 came out, I tried for weeks and weeks to find one in stock and finally did. I played that thing a LOT. When the Xbox One came out last fall, I was intrigued but with a new baby in the house, I had zero time to game. Well I still have zero time to game, but I recently picked up an Xbox One. I’ve only spent a half dozen hours or so playing it (Forza 5 of course), but it’s a nice device. Here are some of the key things I enjoy:

  • Kinect v2 - I never bought the first Kinect because I didn’t think it worked that well, but this new one works much better than the first one.
  • Voice - You can do a lot with voice commands through the Kinect. It remains to be seen how much I’ll actually use this but the geek in me is impressed with how well it works.
  • Sign In - Kinect recognizes who you are and signs you in to your gamertag.
  • Visuals - Graphics are obviously way better than the 360 but the difference isn’t as big as the leap in the previous generation (or at least it’s less noticeable.)
  • Xbox OS - The UI is a lot nicer and there’s actually a good OS behind it all. By that I mean that you can run two apps at the same time and have one snapped to the side of the screen. So for example you could have Skype open on the side while you’re playing a game, but you couldn’t run two games at the same time of course.
  • Digital Downloads - You can still buy discs but every single game is available as a download. Even though the game might take a long time to download, you can start playing it after just a few minutes. Prices are the same as if you bought discs. The advantage is that you never have to get up and swap discs! But you also lose out on reselling the game.

The biggest complaint I have (and I know I’m in the minority) is that the Xbox One doesn’t have a Windows Media Center extender application. That’s how I distribute TV around my house so I’ll need to keep an Xbox360 hooked up to each TV. I was hoping to replace one of them with the new Xbox One.

It’s an expensive toy, but if you’re a gamer, it’s a solid purchase.

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